The risks of fracking

Mon, Feb 6, 2012, 00:00

THE RECENT claim by Tamboran Resources that there could be over two trillion cubic feet of natural gas locked in shale beneath the surface of north Leitrim and adjoining counties has shown that Ireland now stands at the threshold of a new “age of extreme energy”, as the Post Carbon Institute has dubbed it. Australian-owned Tamboran describes itself as an “innovative explorer for hydrocarbons in Australia and overseas”, using hydraulic fracturing – commonly known as “fracking” – to capture shale gas in onshore locations. The benefits of bringing such gas into production, especially given our overwhelming dependence on imported fossil fuels, are obvious. But so are the risks.

Anyone who has watched the documentary Gasland, which deals with the proliferation of fracking wells in the US over the past decade, would come to the conclusion risks outweigh benefits. The most notoroius scenes in Josh Fox’s award-winning film show householders in Pennsylvania flaring gas from their kitchen taps, even while the water was running, because fracked wells nearby had leached into the water table. In many places, water supplies have become undrinkable, contaminated by a wide variety of chemicals used in the operations. Such exploration and drilling was exempted from environmental and health regulations in 2005, at the instigation of US vice-president Dick Cheney, leaving people powerless to challenge the companies involved.

In the Dáil last month, deputy Fianna Fáil leader Éamon Ó Cuív expressed regret that the government of which he was a member granted initial licences to companies such as Tamboran “before we developed a policy on fracking”. The Government has been more cautious in moving to the next stage of considering full exploration licences. It has asked the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to research the issues, now being done at the University of Aberdeen, no stranger to the oil and gas industry, and the results are expected next month.

Given that fracking has been suspended in France, South Africa, North Rhine Westphalia, parts of Australia and even in a number of US states pending more detailed investigations, it is not sufficient for the Government here to rely on a desk-based study in Aberdeen.

Or, indeed, the assurance that fracking projects would require approval from the EPA, An Bord Pleanála, the the Commission for Energy Regulation and Minister for Energy and Natural Resources Pat Rabbitte. A full-scale strategic environmental assessment should be carried out before we cross this critical threshold.